(Editor's Note: For an alternative top 5 list on obesity, see Cameron English's article here.)
It was difficult to limit this list to five people because there are hundreds of amazing individuals working to fight the obesity epidemic. Additionally, experts come from all walks of life - government, academia, non-profit, industry, activism, artistry – and it’s a tough challenge to determine which sector has the greatest impact. There will undoubtedly be many comments and challenges to the leaders I have selected, and I must admit that I have feelings of guilt for omitting people who have profoundly changed my view of our food system. I am also aware that I have listed only men, even though many of you will argue that First Lady Michelle Obama has been one of the biggest forces in the obesity field in recent years.
My hope is that by highlighting the below, we can think deeply about where these people have succeeded, as well as how they might improve or expand their efforts. Obesity is one of the most pressing health issues of our time. We will only be able to relieve the burden if we all work together.
1. Sam Kass, Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives at the White House
While First Lady Michelle Obama would have been an obvious choice for this list, I prefer to highlight her partner-in-crime in the White House. Mr. Kass is not only personal chef to the Obama family, but has also played a critical role in Let’s Move!, the obesity initiative which Mrs. Obama has made her platform. He travels the country promoting the message that children need to eat better and exercise more, and helps shape federal policies around nutrition and consumption. Furthermore, he established a White House garden that has served as an educational playground for schoolchildren. He is passionate about healthy food and realizes that as a chef, he has the power to teach parents how to prepare vegetables that their children will actually enjoy.
2. President Bill Clinton, Founder of the William J. Clinton Foundation
After undergoing a quadruple bypass surgery in 2004, President Clinton has become an outspoken proponent of healthy lifestyles. His foundation joined with the American Heart Association to create the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership that is working to significantly reduce childhood obesity in the United States by 2015. The Alliance encourages innovations at all locations throughout a child’s life: at home, in school, at the doctor’s office, and throughout the community. The Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program, for instance, has urged beverage companies to decrease sales of sodas in schools. President Clinton’s political and social finesse has created a groundbreaking example of public-private partnerships. He will continue to be a powerful force in helping stakeholders work together to reduce obesity.
3. Mike Duke, President and CEO of Walmart
As head of the world’s largest retailer, Mr. Duke constantly faces questions about whether Walmart cares about its consumers and employees. Walmart may have unrivaled influence throughout the world (to the world’s detriment, critics would say) but that power is what makes the company so crucial in the fight against obesity. One of the reasons behind our nation’s obesity epidemic is that individuals, particularly those living in low-income communities, don’t have access to fresh foods. Mr. Duke recently joined forces with Mrs. Obama to promote healthy eating by promising that the company will stock produce and healthier snacks in its stores. Under his lead, Walmart’s Heritage Agriculture program is encouraging the growth of local, seasonal crops by working with small and medium-sized farms. Many regions in our country are “food deserts,” or areas where healthful, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Because Walmart operates in a lot of these areas, Mr. Duke’s policies can potentially have a huge impact on our nation’s health.
4. Michael Pollan, Author and Activist
Mr. Pollan’s books have caused American consumers to question where their food comes from. His arguments are many: that the U.S. farm bill encourages the production of unhealthy calories, that obesity rates are closely linked to wealth, and that the way we eat represents our engagement with the natural world. Mr. Pollan highlights the problems associated with packaged foods and recommends that individuals purchase “only the things that people of his grandmother’s generation would have recognized as food.” Mr. Pollan can at times be too simplistic in his arguments, in that he tends to generalize most large-scale industry agriculture and meat production as evil. Still, it’s always beneficial when consumers are forced to give greater thought to the source of their food.
5. Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Mr. Gates is not someone I typically associate with the issue of obesity. He has spent years (and billions of dollars) fighting inequities in health and only recently expanded his foundation’s focus on agriculture. Even with that, his aims have been to reduce poverty and hunger in Africa and Asia, not obesity in the United States. However, we are so fixated on obesity in the developed world and hunger in developing nations that we forget how quickly obesity is expanding overseas. Worldwide, there are now as many overweight people as there are undernourished, a problem that continues to get worse with globalization. The developing world now suffers more from chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart ailments than it does from infectious disease. Obesity and hunger are both symptoms of our failed agriculture system. Even though Mr. Gates has given his attention to hunger, he has still brought an immense amount of attention to agriculture as a whole. His calls for innovation and research in the agriculture sector will only grow more important as the obesity epidemic worsens.
Photo Credit: emilio labrador